I've begun writing a non-mystery. The research has consumed the last six months of my life, including field research, Internet research, and secondary source research. That last month of researching (October, to be specific), I realized that I was no longer truly researching. I was hiding from writing.
The novel will be about a Lakota (western South Dakota Sioux) girl captured from her home and forced into an Indian boarding school in the early 1920s. I didn't go looking for this story, and the last few weeks, I've spent a lot of time wishing it hadn't found me. It came to me in a dream, as a few of my story ideas do. I was visiting a friend in Wausau, Wisconsin, with my kids. In the middle of the night, I sat up in the futon bed, pushed her cats off of me, and looked down at my son and daughter, who were sleeping on the floor. They were safe. What had woken me up?
When my heartbeat slowed, the dream I had been having flooded back to me and played on the far wall of the bedroom like a movie. I was watching a girl with black hair and skin the color of sand. She was in a kitchen, hungry and looking for food. An older woman came in and argued with her. She sent her back to her room, which was really a dormitory with bed after bed after bed of dark-haired girls. The dream moved in real time, so the girls tossed in their sleep, some of them cried, all of them were lonely. With this movie still playing out of my head, I started writing down the details. And then I went back to sleep, and after a week or two, the vivid dream shuffled into the gray area in the back of my mind.
Several weeks later, I came across an article on the boarding school experience of a Lakota boy. I realized that was what I had seen in that dream in Wausau--an Indian boarding school, and judging by the furniture and nightclothes, it had been around 1900. My curiosity piqued, I started researching, and the more I found out, the clearer the story of the girl in the kitchen became, like a sculptor removing wood to find the shape that lies underneath.
Researching is enjoyable to me, and I immersed myself in it. My kids and I traveled to South Dakota to visit existing and closed boarding schools. I bought and read book after book on the subject. I visited websites created by Lakota individuals and groups. I learned bits of the language. Last month, however, it became clear to me that I had enough research and was just scared to start writing.
My biggest concern was what the Lakota people would think of me writing this story. Native Americans have had their culture appropriated in every way imaginable, and I would just be one more person stealing their history. Even if I could overcome that hurdle, what if I couldn't pull off a story of this scope? I write mysteries, which are challenging but also familiar. This would be historical, literary fiction, which is a whole other beast. If I could even get the blessings of the Lakota to write the novel, and if I could even pull off writing good literary fiction, what if I couldn't get a publisher and all that stress and time was for nothing?
And then finally, there is the simple act of writing, which is invigorating but is also emotional work. Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors, calls this work "returning to the caves of dreams and human memory." It's thrilling, but it's also lonely and sometimes scary. It can be hard to make yourself go into the caves every night.
So that's where I am. I've written six pages, and I like what I've written, but that was a week ago, and I've been afraid to go back. I have a full-time job, I'm raising two kids, my house needs cleaning, I could volunteer more in my son's classroom, shouldn't I put the storm windows on? That's what I tell myself, but the truth is, I'm afraid.